Growing up, I never was sure if I would see my dad when I came home from school. I didn't find it odd or particularly troubling. He's a pilot.
In our airline suburb of Atlanta, filled mostly with stucco homes like ours and disused farmland, his sort of absences – four days away at one point, just the afternoon at another – were common enough that when I took a find-your-perfect-career survey as a child, I didn't understand what checking the "I want a regular 9-to-5" box was supposed to mean.
I had a habit of asking him where he was going next and where he just came from, and of never absorbing his answers past the jumbled string of city names he read from the perforated tear sheet he always keeps in his wallet. "Two-hour layover in Charleston, back through Atlanta and on to Orlando; Pittsburgh for the night. It's a nice hotel gym." My dad likes to repeat himself, and he'd usually follow this string by mentioning that he wasn't sure if he'd get rerouted.
I still ask him, now on the rare phone calls when he's not in the air and I'm not at work. He still pulls his tear sheet to answer.
I wish I could say I relished my time with him back then. But that would only come later. For the years when I lived at home, he was sometimes there to insist he had time and energy enough to join me for a run, or to sit for hours to watch me run a mile race at a track meet, or to watch a favorite cartoon with my brother and me. And sometimes he wasn't.
Then I was the one leaving home, not sure when I'd be back. My dad began toting my New England college bumper sticker on his flight kit along with one for my brother's engineering school. (He made the same self-deprecating joke each time he got comments: "That's not me. It's just my kids who are smart!") He saw my college as his daughter's ticket to a cushy New York banking gig, or maybe a State Department job.
But I had other ideas. Soon enough I was getting comfortable at school – and then antsy enough to jet off for summers in D.C., Miami, and Boston; half a year in Brazil. I decided I preferred novelty to comfort. Since leaving home five years ago, I've called 13 bedrooms my own. It has never seemed odd.
No one knows each of those corners of the country and the globe like a pilot. On my cross-country hops to visit college friends and report stories, I ask him for any city I visit: Dad, where's the best coffee shop in the D.C. airport? What's a nice running route in San Francisco? Is San Antonio cold in December?
But I know the novelty has worn off for him. The wanderlust of sorts – the feeling that took him from a small Rhode Island town to a stint in the Navy as a pilot; that took him to stations in Iceland, Spain, and Bermuda; that made him miss my brother's birth and only just happen upon my premature one – has faded. He's started saying he'd quit flying in an instant ("If they'd still pay me!" always follows) and now wants to be home, maybe go skiing with his friends on vacation.
Now neither of us knows how much longer it will be until we're home together again. It's a bit odd, and it sometimes troubles me now, knowing what it's like to end up spending years away. I told my dad I'd decided to move to Mumbai and try my hand as a freelance reporter. A friend invited me, and I was craving newness, I said. My father said he was surprised how much he liked the city's sweet smell of cow dung being burned for fuel when he had a day's layover there, but that he'd rather I come home. Maybe my brother and I could move back in with them and refurbish old houses, replacing windows and tearing up floors in their fledgling rental home start-up. "I dream of us having a family business," he said.
"So when will you come back from India?" he asked over our brief Christmas break together. I told him I wasn't sure. I wondered when for me, too, the pull of home would be stronger than the pull of new places.